Striking A Pose: Those narrowed eyes, that tilted head, the jutting jaw: so reminiscent of Benito Mussolini. Donald Trump has never held elected office and has no record of public service upon which to build his candidacy. And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely this outsider status that draws so many Americans to him. They are not looking for someone who understands the system. They hate the system. The President they're looking for must be a wrecking ball!
WHAT LEADS THE MAN who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to come out for Donald Trump in 2016? What prompts a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat to re-register himself as a Republican – just so he can vote for “The Donald” in the Florida Primary? Obviously it’s about disappointment. About “change we can believe in” turning into the same old Wall Street shuffle. About “yes we can” somehow acquiring the rider “but not quite yet”. Equally obviously, however, it’s about hope. If the eloquent graduate from Harvard Law School couldn’t, then maybe – just maybe – the ebullient, trash-talking property billionaire can.
Can what, though? That’s what’s got New Zealanders puzzled. Trump offers very little in the way of carefully considered and thoroughly costed policy. Indeed, a rational case for electing Donald Trump president is difficult to make. The man has never held elected office and has no record of public service upon which to build his candidacy. And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely this outsider status that draws so many Americans to him. They are not looking for someone who understands the system. They hate the system. They’re not in the market for a constructive candidate, they want a President who’s ready to go after the system with a wrecking ball!
The Republican and Democratic parties have only themselves to blame for Trump’s extraordinary run of primary victories. For three decades they have either crudely inflamed, or, loftily dismissed, the people they call “Trailer-Trash” and “Rednecks”: the very same people who are now turning out in their tens-of-thousands for the man who openly proclaims that he “loves” the “poorly educated”.
Are you going bald? Does your beer-gut spill over your belt-buckle? Do you work at a dead-end job for the minimum wage? Yeah? Well, guess what? The Donald loves you guys – and he wants your votes. Why? Because your votes, and the votes of those assholes up at the Country Club carry exactly the same weight. That’s right: exactly the same. And you know something else, fellas? There are way more of us than there are of them!
It’s taken these folk a while to work out that all the promises the Republicans made about abortion and gay marriage were only ever intended to keep them away from the Democrats. Not that they needed much persuading – not when the Democrats had already written them off as Bible-bashing misogynists, unreconstructed racists and gay-bashing homophobes. But now they have woken up. Now they know that the politicians in Washington have about as much interest in their welfare as their old employers did when they laid them all off, shut down the factories, and opened up new ones in Mexico or China.
That’s why they have no interest in Senators, or Governors, or any other representatives of the established order. That’s why they’re flocking to the man who’s so rich he doesn’t need to go cap-in-hand to the Koch brothers (like “Little Marco” Rubio). The man who “gets” what’s happened to people like them. The man who knows that the TPP is nothing more than a thieves’ charter, something cooked-up by and for the big corporations. The man who, like them, knows what it means to be ridiculed, excluded and hated – and isn’t afraid to say so out loud. The man who wears the scorn of the Establishment as a badge of honour, and who revels in its all-too-obvious fear.
When asked by journalists (“disgusting people”) what his reaction would be if the Republican Party grandees attempted to deny him the nomination, he didn’t answer them directly. What he would do was not something he was prepared to discuss. What he did tell the news media, however, along with the rest of the political class, was what his followers would do: “There’ll be riots in the streets.”
Moderate America – Hillary Clinton’s America – recoiled in horror. This was without precedent in the nation’s recent history. A presidential candidate had just warned the nation that his followers would not shrink from unleashing civil disorder – if that is what it took to secure their objectives.
Nothing less than the future of the American Republic is now at stake. Its fate in the hands of a social formation filled to the brim with the same reckless disdain for established order that drove the bluff burgesses, sturdy artisans, and unruly apprentice boys of Boston in the 1770s. The revolutionaries who concluded that if the Royal Government in London could offer them nothing more than the constant abrogation of their rights, then they would devise a way of governing themselves.
Two-and-half centuries later, the role of King George is being played by the Federal Government in Washington. Not for nothing did these latter-day rebels style themselves “The Tea Party”. They may not be historians, or political science graduates, but the imagery of the armed citizen stepping forward to confront tyranny is burned ineradicably into their political imaginations. Nor are they strangers to the grim business of securing their nation’s objectives by force. A great many of Trump’s followers are veterans of America’s most recent wars: the men and women who were “rotated” in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq far too many times. Not only are these good ole boys and gals ready to fight for their version of the United States of America – they know how.
Donald Trump, with a political empathy bordering on the fascistic, has made himself the leader of these disregarded Americans. He “gets” them in ways that Hillary Clinton (and even Bernie Sanders) cannot hope to emulate. Like every successful purveyor of nationalistic populism, he first stokes and then validates his followers’ anger. Because they have been cheated by those who claimed to be their friends.
But that’s all over now, because he, the Donald, will never cheat them. He will be their wrecking-ball. And, together, they will “make America great again”.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 21 March 2016.